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For Britain's gig economy workers, coronavirus means tough choices

By Elizabeth Howcroft
·3-min read
FILE PHOTO: The spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in London
FILE PHOTO: The spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in London

By Elizabeth Howcroft

LONDON (Reuters) - Melissa Preston has a choice: go to work for the money to pay her rent or stay at home to keep her family safe from the coronavirus outbreak.

Before the pandemic, Preston earned around 250 pounds ($290) a week as a cleaner. Now she is worried about putting herself and her family at risk by going in and out of other people's homes.

Like some 5 million Britons, she is self-employed, so does not get sick pay. Government benefits alone would not be enough to pay the 800 pounds monthly rent for her house in Northampton, central England, where she lives with her two daughters.

"It's a choice between: do I go and put myself at risk and then bring that in to my children? ... Or do I just, you know, bite the bullet?" Preston, who is 42, told Reuters.

She has bought protective clothing and even goggles to wear while she cleans.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday the government would set out in the next couple of days what support it would be giving self-employed workers, after facing criticism for not including them in billions of pounds worth of measures taken so far to help businesses and protect wages.

Finance minister Rishi Sunak said on Tuesday the government was working on measures to help self-employed people but acknowledged it was difficult to do so fairly because not all of them are losing money.

So far, the only measure the government has announced to help self-employed workers has been to increase Universal Credit by nearly 20 pounds extra per week.

The worst public health crisis since the 1918 flu pandemic has shut down countries and led financial markets to crash, bringing losses for businesses and investors. But it has left millions of poor people around the world particularly exposed.

According to a report by the Resolution Foundation think-tank, while 31% of people in finance, insurance and business are able to work from home, fewer than one in ten in the bottom half of the earnings table can.

Johnson has promised statutory sick pay of 94.25 pounds a week to be available from the first day of illness instead of four days.

But this makes no provision for the nearly seven million workers who do not qualify for statutory sick pay because they are self-employed or don't meet the earnings threshold of 118 pounds per week.

"Government advice is to tell people to look after their own health ... they can't brush over the fact that they've left millions of people actually unprotected financially," said Joshua Nokes, a pizza delivery driver from Daventry.

When he developed a cough on Sunday he started self-isolating and is now waiting to find out if he'll receive sick pay, which would see his income reduced by 75%.

In the last few days, Melissa has spent hours calling government phone numbers and looking online for answers. She watches the government's daily news conferences on TV to see if any measures to help people like her will be announced.

"I've been watching that every day. I'm glued to it ... watching it, just sort of waiting."

(Reporting by Elizabeth Howcroft; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Nick Tattersall)